Like many large cities, Los Angeles sits on top of a complicated maze of underground subway tunnels. Deep under the streets, this efficient transportation system quickly carries passengers to their destinations throughout the city.
During a recent subway expansion project, construction crews made a discovery that has stunned the scientific community. Read on to learn more about what it was that workers unearthed as they dug into the ground under the City of Angels.
The Westside Subway Extension
The Los Angeles Metro Rail first started operating on July 14, 1990. As the city has grown, so has the number of people using the subway. Because of this, the LA Metropolitan Transportation Authority began an expansion project to add three underground train stations and a new branch of the Purple Line subway.
Even though this project was a massive undertaking, no one expected it to lead to the remarkable discovery that it did.
A Secret Waiting For Thousands Of Years
The amazing discovery had been waiting right under the ground for thousands of years, well before there was a modern city full of people above it. After the subway's construction crews stumbled upon this buried secret, paleontologists and other experts were left wondering whether their beliefs about the area’s history were accurate.
It all began with the Westside Subway Extension, which would add more than seven miles to the subway system's Purple Line.
The Groundbreaking Ceremony
There was much excitement about the Westside Subway Extension and its three new stations. To celebrate the project's groundbreaking, the city held a ceremony. Politicians, subway employees, and scientists were all on hand to commemorate the event.
California law states that any time a construction project involved extensive digging, it has to be supervised by paleontologists who carefully inspect the area for important discoveries, such as fossils. For that reason, there were quite a few scientists at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Paleontologist Ashley Leger
Dr. Ashley Leger, Ph.D., is a paleontologist who was present at the Westside Subway Extension groundbreaking ceremony. Some paleontologists do their fieldwork in more remote places like deserts or mountaintops, but Ashley works for a company called Cogstone Resource Management.
Cogstone specializes in investigating construction sites while major work is being done. Paleontologists with Cogstone and other firms look carefully for fossils and other important artifacts that might be uncovered, and the work they do helps to preserve history.
Understandably, Ashley and her colleagues were pretty excited about the excavation that was about to take place on the Purple Line. After all, the construction crews were going to have to dig deep into the earth to build the new subway extension and there was no telling what kind of archaeological treasures would be uncovered in the process.
The Cogburn associates patiently waited as work began on the project and wondered whether they'd find anything interesting on this job.
Patience Is A Virtue
When working on a construction site, some weeks are more interesting than others. After all, you can't expect to make a major paleontological discovery every day! Ashley and her team knew this well and were used to waiting.
One day, though, she had a good feeling that something unusual was going to happen. Was her intuition correct? Was this the day that they were going to unearth something truly remarkable?
Waiting For The Call
While out on a construction job, Ashley has to check her phone constantly in case she gets word from the crew that they've spotted something that needs to be checked out. When this happens, she leads the rest of her team down, ready to investigate.
Any fossil they find is carefully identified and recorded. Ashley feels she’s lucky to have this job, as she never knows what kind of history she’ll get to research each day!
From The Construction Workers' Perspective
The construction crew that was excavating the site also knew they were on a special job. Digging deep into the earth isn't something most people get to do every day, and they were well aware that there could be some very old and historically important artifacts down there.
They didn’t hesitate to let Ashley and the other paleontologists know if they spotted anything at all that looked like it should be checked out. Better to be safe than sorry in a situation like this.
Excitement In The Air
Long before there was even a Los Angeles, enormous creatures roamed the land where the city stands today. Ashley, her team, and the construction crews were all very aware of this fact as they went about their jobs every day.
There's just no telling what kind of fossils might be preserved in the ground right under you. Because of this, everyone felt a sense of excitement as they showed up to the work site each morning.
The Moment Arrives
Finally, the call that changed everything came in for Ashley. It didn't happen during the day while she was on site, though. Instead, it was during the night while she was asleep.
She was used to getting alerts that turned out to be nothing, so she didn’t let herself get too excited. After all, it was probably just a little piece of bone or something else that the construction crew wanted to be extra careful about.
Morning Couldn't Come Soon Enough
When Ashley answered the phone, there was a man on the other end of the line. He said that they had found something that seemed pretty remarkable and that she should come early in the morning to check it out for herself.
As you can imagine, Ashley found it nearly impossible to sleep after the phone call. She couldn't stop imagining what she was going to see in the morning. When the sun finally started to rise, she headed straight to the dig.
Waiting For Ashley
All members of the construction crew had been notified to try and stay out of the way for Ashley and the rest of the Cogburn team in the event that something unusual was discovered. After all, these fossils could be 10,000 years old or more and it was extremely important that the paleontologists and other scientists were able to thoroughly investigate.
When Ashley arrived that morning, the excavation crew was as excited as she was to find out more about their discovery.
Hours Of Digging...
There are many unpredictable aspects of Ashley's job. For one, she never knew when she was going to get a call or alert letting her know that something unusual had been found and that she needed to head over to check it out.
She also didn’t have any way to predict how long it would take her to complete an investigation once she got to the work site. In this case, it took her team more than 15 hours to thoroughly dig the land and see what kind of treasure they had on their hands.
Worth The Wait
Ashley and the team of scientists she worked with were all incredibly patient. Even though a 15-hour dig is a ton of hard work, they knew it was worth it. After all, the opportunity to discover a prehistoric fossil isn't something most people get to do for their job.
After all that work, they had uncovered what looked to be part of an elephant skull. But as she peered closer at the fossilized bone, Ashley realized that it was something even more uncommon than an elephant skull.
The Biggest Find Of Her Life
Ashley couldn't believe her eyes as she realized what she was looking at. It was the skull of a young mammoth, an extremely rare artifact to find. This discovery was massive!
Although she had located a number of interesting fossils in the past, finding a mammoth skull was a career game-changer for Ashley. She had even spent a decade hunting for mammoth remains in South Dakota without luck. This find was a dream come true.
More Work Before Celebrating
Although the team had already labored for hours to get the mammoth skull out of the excavated earth, there was more work ahead of them.
Next, they had to spend many more hours completing the very delicate task of removing all the dirt from the skull, which would later be moved to a lab at La Brea Tar Pits for a thorough examination. The team was beyond excited to have made such an important find.
Dr. Emily Lindsey is Assistant Curator at La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, where the skull was sent. She says that the discovery was a "pretty remarkable find," because although there have been lots of other fossils located in the Los Angeles area, only 30 or so mammoths have been unearthed.
It was determined that the skull came from an eight-to-twelve-year-old male Colombian mammoth. The giant creatures roamed the region during the last Ice Age, about 12,500 to 19,000 years ago.
The Skull Gets A Name!
Ashley said that a mammoth skull "is the one fossil you always want to find in your career." She was overjoyed about her discovery and decided to name the mammoth "Hayden" after the actress Hayden Panettiere, who was on TV the day of the big dig.
Hayden still had small tusks and some of his baby teeth. Recent studies of mammoth DNA have indicated that they could live to be up to 60 years old, although the reason Hayden died so young is still unknown.
Just How Rare Is A Fossil?
It's extraordinary that the mammoth skull Ashley discovered was in such immaculate shape, but it’s also incredible that the fossil existed at all. Most living creatures do not undergo the fossilization process.
In fact, according to the BBC, "scientists estimate that less than one-tenth of 1% of all the animal species that have ever lived have become fossils. Far fewer of them have been found." Hayden truly was a remarkable discovery.
Hayden Went On Display At La Brea Tar Pits
After Ashley Leger discovered Hayden, the mammoth skull was put on display for the public at La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. At the registered National Natural Landmark, visitors can also see the preserved remains of animals that were trapped in the tar pits including bison, horses, a giant ground sloth, an American lion, and a saber-toothed cat.
Hayden's skull will eventually be sent to its permanent home at the Natural History Museum at Exposition Park.
Other Amazing Discoveries At The Site
There have been other incredible finds at the site of the subway expansion project. One of these was a dire wolf, located by Ashley's colleague Cassidy Sharp. She said, "You get to be the first human that has ever seen this animal before and I think that's a really special feeling."
Now extinct, dire wolves roamed the area during the Ice Age. Roughly the size of large modern-day gray wolves, they were fierce competitors of saber-toothed cats.
A Treasure Trove Of Prehistoric Finds
In an interview with ABC7, Ashley reported some of the other fossils that the Cogburn crew had unearthed during the expansion project. "Everything from gophers to mammoths in size. We've got camels and bison, horses and giant ground sloths," she said.
"Mammoths, mastodons and even sabertooth cats and dire wolves. We're getting a beautiful picture of the Ice Age here in Southern California," Leger added. They even discovered some artifacts from human civilizations!